Online Edition: March 2011, Vol. XVII, No. 1
First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
As the Easter season approaches, and parishes anticipate conferring the Sacraments of Initiation either at the Easter Vigil or on another Sunday during the season, questions perennially arise about the order in which the sacraments of First Confession and First Communion are to be administered to young children. Although the Church has repeatedly reaffirmed the traditional order — that confession is always to precede First Communion — mistaken opinions and confusion have persisted for more than three decades.
The confusion is further compounded when dioceses change the usual Catholic practice of administering the sacraments for children: Baptism soon after birth, Confession and Communion when the child reaches the “age of reason”, and Confirmation during adolescence. This practice has been in place in Catholic parishes since the early 20th century when Pope Pius X made first reception of Holy Communion accessible to young children who had reached the “age of reason” (about seven years old), which detached first Communion from Confirmation (Decree Quam Singulari, 1910).
Since the mid-1960s, however, some liturgists have insisted on what they claim is a restoration of ancient practice (maintained by Eastern-rite Catholics and the Orthodox) of simultaneously conferring the three sacraments of Christian initiation — baptism, confirmation, and communion, in that order — on infants. This is the order in which the Catholic Church confers the Sacraments of Initiation on adult converts — often at the Easter Vigil or on Pentecost.
Notably, the sacrament of confession is missing from this “ancient order”. Why?
One argument used for sidelining confession before First Communion is the opinion that a young child is incapable of mortal sin requiring confession before communion — an opinion difficult to defend either doctrinally or experientially. Also, various psychological theories have been advanced to diminish the importance of individual confession — and not only for young children.
This view is not supported by the Church documents that relate to the sacrament, however. It may be useful to review some of these. Here are some relevant quotes (emphasis added):
Code of Canon Law
Canon 914. It is the responsibility, in the first place, of parents and those who take the place of parents as well as of the pastor to see that children who have reached the use of reason are correctly prepared and are nourished by the divine food as early as possible, preceded by sacramental confession; it is also for the pastor to be vigilant lest any children come to the Holy Banquet who have not reached the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed.
Catechism of the Catholic Church
§ 1457. According to the Church’s command, “after having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by an obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.” Anyone who is aware of having committed a mortal sin must not receive Holy Communion, even if he experiences deep contrition, without having first received sacramental absolution, unless he has a grave reason for receiving Communion and there is no possibility of going to confession. Children must go to the sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion for the first time.
Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004 disciplinary instruction on the liturgy):
87. The First Communion of children must always be preceded by sacramental confession and absolution. Moreover First Communion should always be administered by a priest and never outside the celebration of Mass. Apart from exceptional cases, it is not particularly appropriate for First Communion to be administered on Holy Thursday of the Lord’s Supper. Another day should be chosen instead, such as a Sunday between the Second and the Sixth Sunday of Easter, or the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, or the Sundays of Ordinary Time, since Sunday is rightly regarded as the day of the Eucharist. “Children who have not attained the age of reason, or those whom” the parish priest “has determined to be insufficiently prepared” should not come forward to receive the Holy Eucharist. Where it happens, however, that a child who is exceptionally mature for his age is judged to be ready for receiving the Sacrament, the child must not be denied First Communion provided he has received sufficient instruction.
A collection of relevant documents from the Holy See, including the above excerpts as well as earlier responses, is accessible on the Adoremus web site: adoremus.org/ConfessionBeforeCommunion.html.